Last month, Cassie Premo Steele asked readers to submit a short story based on the principles of narrative timing and scene making. This month, you can read the story that was chosen, as well as a Q and A between the writer and Cassie Premo Steele about writing, desire, and empowerment.
by Nancy Brier
Behind the pen counter at Selfridges department store in London, I had two and a half square feet to call my own. In front of me a glass case gleamed with pens that sparkled like jewels.
My co-workers had exotic names like Phillipa and Sophia and were beautiful and well dressed. Each one had a better eye for fashion than I did, and I studied their mannerisms, trying to emulate them in defiance of my Midwestern heritage.
One Wednesday, I wore a pink dress which I had made in desperation to keep up, accessorized with a watery green scarf and a borrowed belt. I was 22 years old and wanted to see the world beyond the borders of a small town when somehow I stumbled into a job selling pens in a place and with people who became more foreign the longer I stayed.
Standing all day, being able to take only a single step to the right or left, I spent the hours between customers mentally composing letters or straining to remember bits of poetry. In the midst of this mental reverie, I met a man from Brazil.
Two olive-toned hands leaned on the glass. "I need to buy a pen as a gift, something for around 50 pounds."
He had to be at least 35 years old, and his confidence was palpable. His English was perfect, with just enough of an accent to be charming, and his expensive shirt and navy pants made me aware of my borrowed accessories.
I remembered my training and directed him to a pen 20% higher than the price he suggested. My fingers brushed his as I handed him the 62-pound pen.
"What is your name?"
"How do you spell it?" All my life, I had been one of many Nancies. Here was a guy who couldn't spell it, who pronounced it in a way that made it sound unusual.
I wrote my name and watched as he wrote it again on the same paper, watching his hand feel the weight of the pen, the way it fit against his fingers.
"I'm not sure about this one."
I handed him another, watched him write "Nancy" over and over again. He told me his name was Luciano, and it sounded like music. "Nancy, where are you from?" he wrote. "Nancy, what do you do when you're not selling pens?" In this way, we conversed. He was too old for me, and the fact that he was buying a pen at a department store put him outside my social class.
"Nancy, will you have dinner with me tonight?" He turned the paper for me to read.
I heard myself say that I would love to have dinner with this stranger. He handed me a card with the name of an Italian restaurant near Trafalgar Square and said he would be waiting there at eight o'clock.
I rode the bus to my shared flat, wondering what to wear, if I had time to redo my hair, and whether or not I should go. It felt dangerous, the kind of encounter they warn American girls about before we travel abroad, but the tide had carried me this far and I put those thoughts aside.
At 7:30 p.m., I splurged on a taxi, a British black cab like the PT cruisers we had at home. London blurred by, some parts familiar but others still exquisitely foreign. I wore a simple black dress with a delicate chain and electric blue stilettos, wondering if Luciano would show up, if I would recognize him if he had changed clothes.
Tentatively, I walked into Mario's, a tiny place with meat and cheese hanging against the walls, the smell of tomatoes and spices heavy in the air. Feeling at once hesitant and brazen, my eyes landed on his where he was seated at the bar, waiting. He stood when I walked over and kissed me on both cheeks, and then guided me to a small table. I flashed back to the only restaurant in my hometown, a diner which included homemade rolls with every meal, a place where the waitress is mopping the floor by eight o'clock at night.
Luciano said he knew just what to order, and I listened to him describe to the waiter what we would be eating and drinking. A bottle of wine arrived seconds later.
I learned that he was the publisher of art magazines and traveled to far-away places. He lived full time in Brazil but kept a flat in London where he spent a lot of time.
I had stars in my eyes by the time the first course came, visualizing myself in Paris at exclusive art galleries, voicing opinions and sampling wine. Luciano was attentive and funny, self-effacing and rich—the perfect date.
When the check came, he reached for his pocket and took out the 78-pound pen I had sold him earlier. I looked at it closely. Part of his key chain was stuck in the clip, and it dangled there for a minute before he tucked it carefully back into his pocket. The image of that key chain stuck in my head as he paid and we got ready to leave.
We were nearly to the door when I realized that it wasn't the ring of a key chain on the clip of that overpriced pen. It was a wedding ring; I had been dallying with a married man. Stepping outside, our eyes met, and he knew that I knew.
"I had a wonderful evening," I said to that charming stranger. In Brazilian fashion I kissed him on both cheeks. A taxi sailed past, and my arm sprang upward. Splurging once more, I climbed inside, gazed out the window and indulged in thoughts of what might have been.
Then, as my neighborhood drew nearer, I turned my thoughts sensibly to what I would wear in the morning.
Nancy Brier is a wife, mother, entrepreneur, and organic walnut farmer living in Northern California.
Q and A Between Cassie Premo Steele and Nancy Brier
Cassie Premo Steele: This story is wonderful and really exemplifies the role of desire in narrative. Have you written short stories before? What was different about writing this one?
Nancy Brier: I like to tell crazy, winding, fantastic bedtime stories to my little girl, but this story is the first I've written down. Although I've done tons of business writing and have stacks of journals, I've been a little shy about trying to write a story. It felt like an indulgence to take time and energy away from wifing, mothering, and working to write such whimsy, and I'm genuinely shocked that it's making its way into the larger world. Your class prompted me to push through some of my fears about sharing my work, so I guess the big difference in writing this story is that I allowed myself the time to write it and then went ahead and sent it in. That makes me think of a question I'd like to ask you: in looking over your class material, I tried to write this story in the third person and found that it lost some of its intimacy and appeal. Any thoughts on why?
CPS: That's a good question. I think it has to do with two things. First, writing in first person is more intimate. But second, I am assuming that since the character's name is the same as yours, the story may be at least partly based on your experience. Is that true? If so, maybe changing it to third person felt too distancing for you. I find that it's imagination that really drives the best writing. So let me ask you that annoying question and have you talk about how you feel about using experience vs. imagination in fiction: is this story based on your life?
NB: It's true that I sold pens at Selfridges in a homemade pink dress while envying my sophisticated colleagues, but none of my customers ever asked me for a date. For this story, I pieced together bits of my life with bits of imagination and wove them together.
CPS: That's great! You see, it was imagination that took it away from your experience and made it into a story! I love that the character walks away (or treats herself to a cab away!) at the end. I'd love for you to talk about how you felt as you allowed the character to exercise her desire to refuse his seduction.
NB: My character was looking for the wisdom and sophistication that can come from travel, but in the end, I wanted her to see that she had those strengths all along. She sees her Midwestern heritage as a weakness, but that heritage turns into an advantage when she declines an offer that's not in her best interest. In my own life, I have often found that my greatest source of power comes from areas that are concurrently my greatest weaknesses. Speaking of power, I have another question for you.
NB: In complying with the 1000-word limit, I had to cut parts of the story which I think gave it greater depth. Is there a market for longer fiction? Do you have any advice for finding places to submit?
CPS: Yes, in fact the word limit for this column is short so that we can also have space for discussions like these about the work. So there are plenty of places to submit longer works. One place I like to check is NewPages where you can find calls for submissions from all kinds of sources. You can also check Literary Mama's monthly calls for submissions on their blog.
NB: Wonderful. Thank you. One last question: I have spent a lifetime doing business writing and personal journals, but when I don't have a specific assignment, it's hard for me to generate a creative piece that I feel like I can send in for publication. I would like to become a full-time writer telling my stories. What can I do to achieve this goal?
CPS: Eat the cake bite by bite. By that I mean that the vision is sustained by small, daily steps that you take in a very scheduled and disciplined way. The artist, Philip Mullen, who is a friend of mine, once told me to think of art as 50/50. You spend 50 percent of your time on creating and 50 percent on submitting and promoting, all the business of being an artist. So you may want to make a schedule for yourself. Work on stories two days a week, for example, and balance that, so two days a week, you also read a book about writing, or research places to submit your work, or connect with other women writers. These kinds of activities are just as important as the creating even though we have the myth of the scribbling hermit and we can tell ourselves that it's not genuine to promote and sell our work. That's a lie. Promoting and selling are ways of being professional and successful, and ultimately that's what it means to be empowered.
Birthing the Mother Writer Class Syllabus (with "Due Dates!")
Here is the syllabus of the class for the next year so you can look ahead and think through the genres, elements, and themes we are covering. And, just as you had a due date for the arrival of your baby, we've got them, too—for your writing for the Birthing the Mother Writer Class! Below are the submission deadlines for your writing. Feel free to send things in early (just like some babies come early!) Pay particular attention to the submission guidelines at the bottom. I look forward to reading your writing and I'm so glad you're in this class!
Unit 1: Poetry
- September—Poetry is the Map
- October—Reader Response to Poetry is the Map (Submit up to 3 poems about how poetry has been your map. Due September 29, 2014.)
- November—The Deeper Stuff of Poetry
- December—Reader Response to The Deeper Stuff of Poetry (Submit an essay of 800-1200 words about claiming yourself as a mother poet. Due November 30, 2014.)
Unit 2: Fiction
- January—The Arc/Ark of Narrative
- February—Reader Response to The Arc/Ark of Narrative (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that demonstrates the principles of narrative timing and scene making. Due February 1, 2015.)
- March—The Role/Roll of Dialogue
- April—Reader Response to The Role/Roll of Dialogue (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that shows an adept use of dialogue. Due March 29, 2015.)
Unit 3: Creative Non-Fiction
- May—The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction
- June—Reader Response to The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction (Submit a creative non-fiction piece of 700-1000 words that exemplifies the qualities of a good essay. Due May 31, 2015.)
- July and August—Summer Break
- September—Life is a Book
- October—Reader Response to Life is a Book (Submit a memoir piece of 700-1000 words developed from old journal entries. Due October 4, 2015.)
Reader Response Submission Guidelines
Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter (at) gmail (dot) com by the due dates listed above. Be sure to do the following:
-Put BMW and the month of your submission in the subject line of the email. For example, if you are submitting writing for February’s column, your subject line should read “BMW February.”
-Include a brief bio of up to 50 words.
-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within five days.